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Jesus’ mission: “Fulfilling The Law & The Prophets”, Matt 5:17-20
In teaching The Life God Intended for us to live, Jesus describes those who enter the Kingdom of Heaven (KOH, the “blessed be’s” of Matt 5:1-12), and their prophetic witness as “salt & light” in society (Matt 5:13-16). Then he clearly states his mission: to fulfill The Law & The Prophets (vv.17-20). And then he follows on with what that means, what that looks like, from Matt 5:21-48 and on through to Matt 7:12, which “sums up” and echoes Matt 5:17.
Jesus says that he did NOT come to abolish Moses’ covenant, The Law, but to fulfill it in his KOH mission. The Law (Torah) is God’s prescribed will for human flourishing – the life God always intended human beings to live. We flourish as human beings – God’s image-bearers – if we obey God’s law and live it. Thus Jesus upholds it’s value: nothing will disappear from The Law “until everything is accomplished” (v.18), i.e. fulfilled. In fact, he intensified its ethical demands, seen in Matt 5:21-48, while other teachers of The Law in effect relaxed them (v.19), as we will see in subsequent posts.
It was an open secret that, though Torah embodied God’s will, it lacked the power to make people obey and live it. Why? Not because the first covenant of Moses was faulty per se, but because of the sinfulness (“the hardness”) of the human heart, which God’s Law repeatedly exposed. And therefore God provided the Temple sacrificial system for the forgiveness of sins – when Jews repeatedly broke God’s commands. God also promised a new covenant-relationship that will transform the heart by the Spirit, enabling God’s people to do his will (Jer 31:31-36, 32:38-40, Ezek 36:26-27).
Jesus was God’s Anointed King (Messiah), giving the promised “baptism with the Holy Spirit” (Matt 3:13) in the coming of the KOH new covenant (Matt 4:17). All who enter ‘it’ – this new relationship with God through faith in Jesus – receive a “righteousness that surpasses the Pharisees” (v.20). This is the righteousness that Jesus lived and modeled, enabled by God’s indwelling Spirit – and given to those who enter the KOH that Jesus proclaimed.
Righteousness is (God’s) ‘covenant faithfulness’ that gives us ‘right-standing-before-God’ and ‘right-way-of-relating/living’ in society. It is NOT attained or merited by outward behavioral performance, conforming to the rules, as the Pharisees taught. Jesus said they taught one thing and lived another reality, i.e. hypocrites (Matt 23:1-4). Righteousness is given through relational faith in Jesus, by trusting HIM for right-standing-before-God and right-way-of-living – rather than earning the reward of righteousness by our efforts at obedience. Followers of Jesus live by relationship and not by rules. We live by relying on Jesus and his enabling Spirit, not by trying to keep God’s requirements in our own strength.
Behavior changes when the heart and mind is changed. We don’t try to obey the letter of The Law of Moses written in stone – we will fail, because our hearts are “hard” (sinful). Rather, we depend on the Spirit of The Law writing God’s will in our hearts and minds. That is the Hebraic way of saying the Holy Spirit enables us to do God’s will “as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10) from “a heart of flesh” (Ezek 36:26-27). I.e. as our hearts and minds are changed – progressively transformed from the inside out by living in God’s Rule and Reign of Love – we live the life God intended. The “heart” is the core and whole of the human being, the spirit-fountain out of which all of life flows and is lived (Prov 4:23).
In summary: the Pharisees focused on outward behavioral conformity, trying to obey God in the moment when needed. Jesus focused on inward transformation of the governing intentions of the heart, training for obedience by relational trust in God’s enabling Spirit in every moment. Jesus repeatedly taught this ‘heart-change-behavior’ principle in various ways:
The behavioral-fruit comes from the heart-root (Matt 7:16-20, 12:33-35);
What’s in the heart comes out – or is seen outwardly – in our thoughts, words and deeds (Matt 15:16-20);
First clean the inside of the cup and the outside will be clean (Matt 23:25-26).
To illustrate what he meant by “fulfilling the Law & the Prophets”, Jesus gave six ethical redefinitions in Matt 5:21-48. Each one shows how God’s intended purpose of The Law & Prophets is fulfilled in all who enter the KOH (Matt 4:17) and receive his Spirit-baptism (Matt 3:11). What Moses prescribes under the (old) covenant, Jesus describes in his new covenant relationship with Spirit-enabled behavior. By beginning each of the six with “you have heard it said… but I say…”, he teaches like the other rabbis, quoting a text and then giving his interpretation. He also ‘builds a hedge’ around the commandment; i.e. long before you get to actually break the commandment, you ‘run into’ and discipline the inner governing tendencies that cause you to disobey it.
However, there are four basic differences in Jesus when compared to the other teachers of his day:
1) He assumed the coming of the KOH in his ministry with Spirit-enabled new covenant behavior;
2) Thus he claimed and spoke with an authority from God that was not acknowledged, and even rejected, by most Rabbis – but recognized and respected by the common people (Matt 7:28-29);
3) Showing the Jews of his day that his movement really was the fulfillment of all that Israel believed and longed for – to be God’s kingdom of priests and prophets among all the nations – and…
4) That Jesus and his followers were to live by, and even die for, this revolutionary new way of being human, being God’s image-bearers.